One Giant Leap - Surprisingly Basic Technology of the Moon Landing

Posted: 7/19/2013 11:57:34 EDT

Mission control

July 20th is the 44th anniversary of the moon landing. 1969 was a very different era technologically; it would be difficult for most of us to imagine.

Phones had cords, TVs were not at all flat, you could smoke indoors ...and we landed on the moon.

All the way there, landed, walked around, and flew all the way back, safely.

Top notch engineers, steely test pilots, and guts made it all possible. But, here are a few of the technological marvels of the day that made Apollo 11 a success.

Written notes on the Lunar Lander

Credit: Steve Jurvetson

No email. Notes were handwritten in a log book so that the day crew and night crew could communicate their work for the day. These are a couple of pages from the Grumman Engineering Log for the design of the Lunar module in 1968.

Handsewn Space Suit

From Science20:

The 21-layer A7L suit was created by the International Latex Corporation but that company was better known by its consumer brand, Playtex, then - the brand is part of separate companies now.   

And those spacesuits were made by hand.  By seamstresses.   Like I said earlier, newer is not always better and no machine was going to beat a human in this instance.   "They had to sew to a 1/64th of an inch tolerance without using any pins. So there was no question that it was kind of a couture handicraft object versus something made according to more conventional military industrial principles," said de Monchaux.

Freeze dried food

Bacon squares and cereal cubes

Each meal was planned and packed before the mission, and each crewman could choose from a menu of options, aiming for 2,500 calories/day. Each meal was in a foil-wrapped "TV dinner" tray, the norm from Apollo 10 onward.

Approximately 80 percent of the weight of fresh food is water; therefore, the removal of water resulted in a substantial reduction of food system weight. As was previously noted, water for rehydration available as a by-product of fuel cell operation, wherein hydrogen is combined with oxygen to release electrical energy.

Neil Armstrong's menu. No Tang.

Credit: Steve Jurvetson

"We went to the moon with slide rules"

Credit: Gerry Lauzon

From NBC News:

“We went to the moon with slide rules,” retiree Norman Chaffee, who worked on the spacecraft propulsion system, told the Associated Press. “I didn’t even have my first full-function calculator until 1972."

"It is astonishing to think that much of the routine mathematical work that put people into orbit around Earth and landed astronauts on the Moon in the 1960s was performed using an unassuming little mechanical analog computer – the 'humble' slide rule."

Peter Grego (2009). Astronomical cybersketching. Springer. p. 12.

Panic button

From the Guardian:

But the term "computer" only barely applies to Nasa's primitive processing technology. Pillinger says: "The only calculator available to scientists at the time was the size of a cash register. You put the levers in the right place and wound the handle."

DSKY - Display and Keyboard

Credit: Steve Jurvetson



The computing power that was present on board Apollo 11 was equivalent to that found in a very basic calculator of the early 1980s and far less powerful that the sorts of chip you’re likely to find inside an child’s electronic toy.

“The computer on the [moon] lander was 64Kb – it’s hard to imagine anything so small nowadays when your digital camera has a gigabyte and your mobile phone probably has the same,” said Pat Norris, who led the team that designed the navigation systems that controlled the orbit of the lunar module on Apollo 11.

DSKY in the Command Module


 “When production of onboard computers for the Apollo programme was at its peak, it consumed fully half of the world’s output of integrated circuits, yet only 75 units were constructed between 1963 and 1969. This is not because they were all used in the final machines [three DSKYs per flight], but because NASA bought vast numbers of the tiny devices from the manufacturers and hammered them with a barrage of tests to force ever higher quality control.”

– How Apollo Flew to the Moon, 2nd Ed., p.166.

"Barely a minute of fuel left in the tank."

In fact, it’s well known the in the end Neil Armstrong turned off the guidance system and landed the lunar module manually after he realised that the lander was going to otherwise set down in a relatively inhospitable location, using up most of the spare fuel in the process. In fact, when he set down, there was barely a minute left of fuel left in the tank.

The astronauts heartrate monitor shows you that moment:

One Giant Leap...



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